Shortly after midnight we were awakened by explosions nearby. We tried the lights but they would not go on so that we had apparently slept through the alert and alarm. The explosions had sounded near enough to make us uneasy and we dressed hastily in the dark. We had grown so used to the alarms that for some time we had neglected to lay out our clothes and shoes before going to bed. We had not even left our candle at arm’s length. But we managed to grope our way down to the basement quickly enough. It was pitch-dark and almost no one spoke but the crowd made itself felt; it stirred, sighed, breathed rapidly, pressing itself into the deepest corners like a frightened whispering hunted thing. I left Anita there and went up and out.
The neighborhood association officials were running about softly in the dim foyer, readying pails and staves. I did not want to look like a spectator and took one of the hooked staves in my hand. It gave me an official look and one of the officials thanked me with fine courtesy for nothing at all. The skies were already covered with smoke. It was a night of wind and cloud, and the bloody mists, streaked with gray and black, went scudding swiftly overhead. There were fires in the familiar directions, downtown and the imperial palace, but they seemed far enough away and I went back in to wander through the deserted corridors.
Suddenly there was a rush of feet and cries. Fire had broken out — inexplicably I had heard nothing — almost next door in the army post-exchange. Hurrying along the empty sidewalks, under the burning clouds, sharp smoke in my eyes, I had for a moment a queer dreamy sensation of having been left alone in the middle of this great deserted city going up in flames. I ran on quickly until I saw a small group of neighborhood officials hovering uncertainly at the edges of a blazing army store-house. There was no-one else around; everyone was standing guard over his own house. The fire was already out of control. The small red neighborhood association hand-pump never looked so pathetically futile as now that it sent out its thin thread of water into the leaping flames. A girl in an army smock started to pull out a packing case that had been left on the edge of the warehouse but it was a hopeless task. The wind was howling and leaping madly from one side to the other. A red hand flicked carelessly toward the girl and she staggered back.
There were only three small rickety shops separating the Nonomiya from the fire and it seemed to be a question of luck whether they would go or not. The wind kept changing, twisting blindly now here, now there. Then it made up its mind. The stationery shop started to steam and smoke. We made some half-hearted efforts to save it but even the owner soon, began, throwing the bedclothes out of the window. There was now no water to be had; the pressure had almost completely disappeared. The army had built three range water reservoirs for the waterhouse’s protection but they had been wedged in, with what now seemed incredible stupidity, between the shop-fronts and the flank of the apartment house. It was impossible to get through. We stood and stared at the flames for some time, uncertain as to what to do next. The fire-engines were wailing all around us but none were coming our way.
“We should pull down these shops and make a fire-break,” somebody suggested.
“With what?” was the obvious reply.
I looked at the hooked staff in my hand and threw it away. The glass in the stationery shop was cracking and we helplessly watched the fire run along the shelves. Soon the office next-door would go and lastly the pet shop. It was curiously empty. The gaily-colored birds were not in their cages and as I went through I wondered vaguely whether the owner took them home every night or whether he had opened their cages when the fire began to spread. It was a shallow shop and from a narrow balcony in the back I could put out my hand and touch the wall of the Nonomiya.
Still nobody believed that the Nonomiya would burn; the seven-story apartment-house, with its clean modern lines alternately painted in wide blue and white stripes, never looked so safe and strong. It rose like a calm square tower from the empty crimson hill.
The neighborhood association leaders were having a hasty conference in the lobby. They had an air of alert confidence too. Orders were issued and they were answered with smart “Hai, hai, hai.” They seemed to say: Well, we have done everything we could do for these pesky neighbors; now we are on our own and this place won’t burn, thank God. They nodded to me briskly and I felt a little ashamed that I had already became uneasy. It was difficult to find Anita in the basement; the place was crowded with women whispering softly to one another in the expectant darkness. When I finally located her I said it would be wiser to do a little packing, not much because it did not look so very bad, but still, the fire was almost next door. We were groping our way out when we heard the voice of the reception clerk calling out in a sobbing hysterical wail for her father, the apartment janitor; they lived in the neighborhood and her father had the key to her trunk.
There was something urgent in her voice that made us quicken our own steps. Once in our apartment we drew back the curtains and there was no need of light. Below our front windows was a sea of flames, reflected ironically in those useless isolated reservoirs. From the back window we could see a great ring of flames all around us; it seemed that Tokyo was bounded with fire and smoke. Just across us, in the center of the ring, there was a vast blue spout of gas, cold, clean, and pure in the heart of that burring sky.
I told Anita to pack a suitcase with essentials while I went down to see if I could help. In the corridor I met our neighbor the factory owner. He was as chirpy as usual. “No need to worry,” he grinned, helpfully flashing his light as we walked. “It looks all right.” There was nothing much to do downstairs. There was still no water. We trudged about conscientiously but helplessly. Then for the first time I became aware of the bombers flying overhead. I was too excited to feel afraid. They were very low but it was impossible to see them through the murk; one could only hear them, prowling and growling watchfully in the darkness, now shouting loud challenges and threats, now fading into distant rumbling full of menace and disdain. Staring up into the mysterious void surcharged with the sound of formless nameless death, I could understand for the first time how the Japanese could look on the destruction of their homes, not as the planned vengeance of a human foe, but as a natural catastrophe, an unpredictable earthquake, an incomprehensible typhoon, “divine punishment”.
As the fire spread, more and more people began to appear in the streets but they made little noise. They ran about softly, like melancholy shadows, bent under great ghostly bundles, appearing and disappearing in the vague thickening mists of smoke. Once more I felt alone, deserted, and I ran back quickly into the apartment house, through the foggy lobby down into the basement. There was no one there. I ran up again out into the street. A gust of wind swept back the smoke and I saw a group of people huddled at the next corner. Someone was waving. It was Anita.
“We were told to take shelter here. Where have you been?”
Fortunately the embassy was nearby. We decided to take our suitcases there for safety. We had scarcely set out when we heard rapid steps behind us.
“Wait for me. Oh, please take me with you!”
It was Yvonne, hysterical, her face streaked with soot.
We went on again. The fire had circled around the calm graceful tower of the Nonomiya and almost the whole of Kudan hill was blazing. We panted our way up the steep slope amid swirling smoke and flying cinders. The pale silent people ran noiselessly around us or sat quietly on the sidewalks, watching their spectral burdens. Only one man spoke to us. He came out of the smoke suddenly.
“It is not safe to go up,” he warned.
But when we went on, he did not stop us. Like a character in some shadow play who had spoken his line, he fell back into the crimson smoke.
The embassy too was still safe. I left Anita and Yvonne and went back to the apartment house with two of our boys. I decided it would be better after all to try to get everything out. Surprisingly the lobby was now full of people. Apparently the refugees from the neighborhood had come to exactly the opposite conclusion. Somehow they imparted, an air of security and confidence. The people from the neighboring office had dragged their two cash registers to the front door of the Nonomiya and were now sitting on them. Nevertheless we decided to go up and get out as much as we could. The fire next-door was flush with the Nonomiya’s flank. The glare was dazzling as we ran up the staircase, passed the cracked windows. The corridors were muddy and treacherous with abandoned water-hose. One of the rooms had apparently caught fire during my absence but the abortive conflagration had been put out. Our own apartment still seemed pretty safe and we were able to make two more round-trips to the embassy.
The third time it was too late. Once more the fire had smashed one of the lower windows and had leaped in eagerly; this time too swiftly to be stopped. It ran along the linoleum carpets and the wood paneling, sneaked in under closed doors, snatched at curtains and bedspreads. We were driven back from the staircase by the glare and the heat. Now, at the last minute, the few tenants left made an effort to save their belongings. It was already too late. But still it was eerily quiet except for the crackle of flames and the crash of timber. For once the excitable Japanese did not shout and they did not weep. They fell back from the fire with timid reluctance, staring fixedly into the devouring flames. Now the windows of the apartment were lit up one by one; behind the glass, still whole, the rooms were bright and gay; from the burning hill the burning tower rose in harmonious climax.
We lingered for a moment to watch. From a doorway a German woman in a glistening fur-coat tugged at me by the sleeve.
“Excuse me. Have you come from the apartment? How is the fourth floor?”
“I’m afraid it’s burning.”
She smiled uncertainly and thanked me. “It must have been like this in Berlin.”
In the embassy I found Anita and Yvonne sit in the fitful dark amid suitcases and bundles. Yvonne was babbling nervously about, her panic.
“I saved only one suitcase,” she giggled. “And it has my summer clothes.”
She paused and then lifted up a covered cage in her hand. She had not forgotten her pet bird. But she had sacrificed a French manuscript of which she had been making copies for the author. The manuscript represented 20 years of research in Japanese literature, It was the only copy.
“Oh, he’ll never forgive me,” she wailed, belatedly remembering the author. And then, with an uncertain smile: “I had better not tell him I saved my bird. He would never understand.”
I found the ambassador in the embassy tower. There were three Japanese policemen with him who had suddenly appeared for his “protection”. On this highest point of Kudan hill one could submerge individual cares in the humbling spectacles of general catastrophe. We were surrounded by concentric circles of fire that the wind whipped faster and faster in their racing orbits. Tokyo was burning and it seamed a little silly to say anything.
I suppose everyone in Tokyo that night imagined himself in the very center of those circular hells. I know we did, looking down on the flames that lurched and lunged up the slope toward us. Soon the tall schoolhouses around the embassy were blazing too. As telephone poles crashed down with fiery explosions, there was a little fear that the garage, with its deposit of gasoline, would go up. But a high wall and a spacious garden saved the building and shortly before dawn we felt we were safe.
I went out into the street again and made a round of burning Kudan. Already sentries with fixed bayonets were on guard on street-corners but they did not stop me. One little fire-engine had finally found its way to one of the cheap apartment houses nearby but it could do nothing much. It was pretty hopeless to try to save these woodland-paper doll-houses, crowded elbow to elbow and caught In the teeth of a raging wind. There were still burning incendiary shells on the streets although the all-clear had sounded sometime during the chaos that was now dying down. Bright blobs of flame were scattered all along the slope and on the sidewalks one stumbled on empty dented shells. But nobody bothered about them now. There was nothing left to burn except the asphalt of the pavement. A monotonous crashing of tile and tin followed me as I went back up the hill. All around me the city lay beaten flat in its ashes.
The students in the girls’ college opposite the gates of the embassy were doggedly trying to save the building when I returned. Someone said that three of the girls had been caught in the basement. The faces of their schoolmates gave no clue to this tragedy: blank and expressionless in their grimy mompei, they were lined up in a pail brigade from the ornamental pool in the embassy gardens to their college entrance, passing the buckets along with soft encouraging “hai, hai, hai,” down the line.
Vargas had planned to leave for Karuizawa in the morning and the fire did not change his mind. Baggage and provisions were loaded on and the schoolgirls at the gate stopped for a while to stare at the sleek black limousine rolling smoothly and disdainfully down past the smoking ruins. “Hai, hai, hai,” — was there a note of envy, hatred, threat, pride, resignation, or the gentle melancholy gladness that a traveler in the desert feels even for the momentary illusion, the sweet swindle, of peace and security flashed by a mirage? The voices were a soft monotone and they gave no sign.
We had not had any sleep and we were too tired to have any now. But we went to bed for a rest after seeing Yvonne off to her consulate. Later a number of officials called to inquire and express regrets. The German rector of the Jesuit university, making a round of Catholic colleges on his bicycle, was among the first. He had watched the B-29’s break through and come over, one or two at a time, from here and there, flying low, much below the anti-aircraft fire. They had cleverly kept the circles of fire going, narrowing them, it seemed, closer and closer. His neighbors had fought the advancing fire together, stern and pitiless to one another. Those who left the fire-fighting units to try to save something out of their homes were fittingly punished; what they had saved was tossed back into the flames. Only once had they paused in their grim task. A B-29 was hit over their heads and, clapping and jumping, they had set up a wild pathetic cheer.
Later the embassy butler arrived. He shambled in, gaunt, unshaven, clutching a blackened empty pail. He had saved nothing else. The embassy laundress had also lost her house. She stalked in like a heartbroken ghost. She said she had managed to save a bundle of clothes but the neighborhood association officials had slapped her down for her selfishness and had thrown the bundle into the fire. That was the story she told. Others said she had been hysterical and it had been necessary to slap her back into her senses. She had thrown herself into a half-burning shelter, clutching an odd wooden shoe.
Yvonne returned shortly after lunch, if possible more excited than ever. She had been to see the French consul and that dignitary had announced to her dramatically: “I am no longer French consul-general!” The Japanese, she insisted had “declared war” on Indo-China. It was all very confusing, she admitted. All she knew for certain was that she was not supposed to have any dealings with other foreigners. And ah yes, when she had gone to the district police station to report, the first thing they had told her was: “You spent the night at the Philippine embassy, no?” Somehow we did not seem to care very much whether Japan had “declared war” on Indo-China or on Monaco. We were more interested in Yvonne’s story that, hounded and nagged by the disconsolate author whose manuscript she had lost, she had managed to climb up to her apartment on the seventh floor of the Nonomiya. Apparently all the floors had been gutted but the fires had been put out by mid-morning.
We decided to go up to see our own apartment. We found the ground floor totally undamaged. Two of the apartments, we were also told, had escaped by some chance. Not ours. We went slowly up the staircase, stripped to its concrete foundations and already cold under the feet although the stench of smoke and wet embers was heavy. There was nothing left in the apartment, of course, except a few cups and saucers and two pots which we carefully put aside. The wind was whipping through the broken windows from the lugubrious ruins outside. Afterward we sent someone to fetch the pots and the china but when he got there, half an hour later, they were gone.
Night fell with charitable haste to cover, the ravaged city. There was no electricity, water, or gas in the embassy and we had dinner at the house of a colleague. It seemed magically peaceful and comfortable there after a long dismal walk past the rocky desert of ruins, with the homeless stretched out on a stray straw-mat or two under the gaunt burnt trees. Strangely enough it was not so much these dumb shivering victims who struck the highest note of emptiness and desolation as the sound of countless water faucets spouting unheeded in the wilderness of tangled, debris and the naked gas pipes burning at the mouth with a delicate blue flame, and no one to bother to turn them off.